Plans for `new' zoo based on hope that less becomes more

City facility to lay off five, close two months a year, add trams to ease walking

Changes at zoo to include a new name

July 09, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's zoo is about to undergo a revolution as its leaders struggle to turn it into an economically viable institution.

They are about to impose a reorganization that will physically shrink the zoo, reduce the management staff by five, eliminate the reptile house and close the grounds during January and February, when visitation slows.

Two snow leopards and a family of four white-cheeked gibbons will go, too, although some sifakas - a type of lemur - might soon go to live in the Africa exhibit.

When the reptile building closes, new homes will be found for its 500 animals.

The changes - to be in place by March 1 - are expected to save the zoo more than $1.2 million a year, about 10 percent of its annual budget.

Some of the savings will be diverted to deferred maintenance and promised salary increases, zoo officials said.

"I'm excited about what we've come up with because I think it's a better product, as well as assuring our long-term sustainability," said zoo President Elizabeth "Billie" Grieb. "I believe that this will ensure that there is a wonderful zoo experience for Marylanders for the foreseeable future."

The zoo's precarious financial condition was revealed in November when it announced layoffs and plans to lend out its two elephants to cut costs. That sparked a public outcry that led to an emergency aid package from the state and donations from the public and businesses that kept the elephants at home and the zoo's gates open.

The rescue effort also produced one highly visible permanent change. It's now the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore - a name that zoo officials say more aptly describes its visitors and funding base.

The cuts are intended to put the zoo's operations on stable economic ground and avoid future emergencies.

But they run counter to a recent national trend that has seen zoos expanding exhibits and adding programs to increase their revenues.

"In terms of reinventing things, most people aren't going this route," said Jane Ballentine, a spokeswoman for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. "They're expanding. They're adding new exhibits. What they've done, even in small doses, is give the public something new, some new reason to come in."

Ballentine, who lives in Baltimore and worked in public relations at the zoo for several years more than a decade ago, praised plans to address maintenance issues at the aging facility.

But she said the overall success of the plan remains to be seen. The facility needs more support - perhaps even a voter referendum, she said.

"They're probably making the best decisions with the materials, information and money they have," she said. "If Baltimore had a great zoo, it would be a tremendous boon to tourism. They don't right now. They've fallen on some hard times."

Even the flagship exhibits are starting to show wear. The relatively new Maryland Wilderness exhibit - where children can hop on lily pads, sit in an oriole's nest or play on a turtle shell - is more than 10 years old.

The Meyerhoff family, for whom that exhibit is named, has agreed to allow about $900,000 of its $1 million gift to the zoo to be used for restoration rather than new construction.

"We want the wilderness exhibit to be a tip-top exhibit and a big draw for the zoo," said Terry M. Rubenstein, executive vice president of the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds. "As trustees and funders, all of us have to be realistic and fund what we can support and not just what we can dream."

Plans to build a new reptile building were scrapped when the extent of the financial woes became clear in November.

"We were at the point where we needed to know if the people wanted a zoo," Grieb said. "We were delighted that we had such an outstanding response. The public had come to take the zoo for granted and just assumed that it would always be there."

The zoo, on more than 160 acres in Druid Hill Park, suffers from infrastructure problems like many such institutions. Its sprawling grounds make it difficult for some visitors to negotiate its hills; winter maintenance, in particular, is a nightmare.

By the time visitors have walked from the front gate to the giraffes and elephants, they've traveled more than three times the length of Disneyland in California, Grieb said.

"Your reward is you get to walk back the same way, and it's uphill," she said. "I think our zoo expanded historically because we could - without thinking of the impact on the visitor or the cost to maintain it."

About $50,000 of the anticipated cost cuts will come from closing the zoo during January and February, when fewer than 5 percent of the zoo's annual visitors have typically come.

No staff will be furloughed then. And the zoo likely will open for the Martin Luther King Day and Presidents Day weekends. But the extended downtime will allow workers to do much-needed maintenance essentially uninterrupted. It will also save the cost of snow and ice removal on vast stretches of the grounds.

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